Structural engineer Michael Skoller traces his career choice to “pure luck.” And as luck would have it, he’s stuck with the profession for almost 37 years. In a recent interview, he reflected on his decades in the field — from engineering the largest residential house in Texas to procuring new projects at National Structural Engineering Inc., a Houston-based firm.
Employers say engineers like Skoller are among the most difficult talent to find, but those who commit to the field can expect competitive salaries. Base salaries for principal structural engineers reached a five-year high of $150,000 last year, according to a 2012 salary survey by Three ZweigWhite. Average structural engineer salaries for job postings nationwide are 38 percent higher than average salaries for all other job postings, Indeed.com reported in a survey of competitive earnings.
Skoller, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, offers his best lessons for the incoming class of millennials, and explains how he’s led a fulfilling career.
Career Journal: What is your definition of a structural engineer?
Skoller: Pretty basically, a structural engineer takes architectural plans, provides members and designs members such that the building doesn’t fall down and withstands the wind — and dead loads, live loads, seismic loads, all types of loads that it will encounter during its life.
On a daily [basis], I’m procuring new projects, talking about existing projects, explaining the drawings to people in the field that are fabricating them or building them, and I’m very active in the community with my associates.
Career Journal: When did you enter this profession?
Skoller: Entering this profession was just by pure luck. I was a math major in school (Carnegie Mellon University) and I decided I wanted to have a job in my sophomore year. So I talked to my roommates and asked each one of them which field they were in and the one for civil engineering sounded the most interesting. So I switched over to a civil engineering major.
As far as becoming a structural engineer — that also was also pure luck. It was a tough time when I graduated, and my roommate had gotten a job in Oklahoma designing oil barracks and that sounded interesting. So I called the person who hired him, and asked whether they had any interest in hiring another person also and they said yes. So we both moved to Oklahoma.
Career Journal: Did you take any training programs along the way?
Skoller: Every day, all the time. Even though my field requires 15 hours of continuing education, I generally get 45-60 each year. I’m always taking classes and courses and writing papers and always learning.
Career Journal: Engineers are often cited by companies as positions that are difficult to fill. Why do you think this is?
Skoller: Just from my experience, there are so many different sub-fields. Say, industrial, electrical, there are numerous fields of engineering. Typically, when an employer is looking for an individual to hire, they’re wanting someone with experience and it’s just with that particular field. There’s not a large pool of people, and that’s probably why is difficult to find experienced individuals.
Career Journal: What characteristics drive a successful career in your field?
Skoller: Being able to visualize structures in three dimensions (helps).
Career Journal: Any lessons learned from past jobs that have shaped your career?
Skoller: Ask lots of questions. I have employees that just don’t ask questions and you can’t improve yourself unless you do. And that was something that I always did along the way and even when I got to seminars, I ask a lot of questions. I think it’s very important to speak up and have [things] explained to you.
Career Journal: Any specific resource that has been most helpful to you outside of your daily job?
Skoller: I’m a member of numerous organizations. I’m on the board is the Foundation Performance Association. The other ones include the American Concrete Institute, American Iron and Steel Institute, The American Plywood Association (now, the Engineered Wood Association), the American Wood Council, Steel Framing Alliance and the American Society of Civil Engineers. But those are just a few.
Career Journal: What fascinates you the most about this career?
Skoller: Seeing the completed project. In other words, after you engineer it, and it’s built, you can go and see it, and you can go around town and say, “I engineered that.”
Career Journal: Any one project that you are most proud of?
Skoller: I did the largest house in Houston, Texas. I engineered that. It had 2 million pounds of marble in it. It took over 10 years to build, but only because they changed plans along the way.
Career Journal: What is biggest challenge and how did you overcome that challenge?
Skoller: One challenge is providing a product at a better rate that’s acceptable to the client. When I first got in the field, we weren’t using computers, so it’s definitely a challenge to keep up with the technology — but that’s a constant challenge. That probably would be the biggest challenge, to keep up with the technology, which is ongoing.
Career Journal: Besides asking a lot of questions, what else can an up-and-coming structural engineer, or even engineers in general do to succeed?
Skoller: [The profession] is heavy in math, so I would hope that they would like mathematics. If they don’t then they may be in the wrong field. I thoroughly enjoy what I do. But I would always recommend to network. You learn a lot by networking.